5 Questions with Jane Bailey: Keys to success for adult learners

1. Adult learners, students age 25 and older, have become one of the fastest growing college student populations and are expected to grow another 14 percent through 2021, according to Noel Levitz recent National Adult Student Priorities Report. Why do you feel so many adult learners are going back to school in hopes of earning a degree?

Adult student with a laptopThere are many reasons that adult learners go back to school and those reasons are not always tied to earning a degree. One reason people return to school is to fill the gap between their current skills and the needs of 21st century employers.  As low skill jobs decrease and high skill jobs increase, it becomes more important for adults to shore up their workforce skill level.  Adult learners are returning to school to add certificates to their resumes, complete an unfinished degree, gain a higher-degreed status, become self-fulfilled, or are on a quest for lifelong learning. 

 With the burgeoning of online learning, it is easier than ever for adults to fit higher education into their busy professional and personal lives.  Now 40 percent of all post-secondary students are adult learners 25 or older.  It is no longer unusual for students to be outside of the ‘traditional’ 18-22 year old college demographic.  

 While the reasons are many that adults return to school, completing a degree is the goal of most adult learners.  This may be a brand new bachelor’s degree, a degree left unfinished earlier in life, or an additional degree, either in content or level—moving from bachelor to master to doctor.  A college degree used to serve someone throughout his/her career, however research, in conjunction with Deloitte’s Shift index, shows that the current shelf life of a college degree is five years.  Changing technologies and increases in information are rapidly changing the longitudinal value of a college degree.

2. Over 85 percent of adult learners surveyed felt having a knowledgeable and accessible academic advisor was important to their successes and the completion of their degree program. How important is it for adult learners to have an available support system and what assistance should that support system provide?

Surveys of adult learners, whether the Noel Levitz National Adult Student Priorities Report or a school-specific survey such as the Post University alumni survey, clearly demonstrate that adult learners both want and need a support system throughout their college years.  An academic advisor plays a critical support role in keeping a student on track toward graduation.  The advisor can (and should) monitor what a student is taking so the student’s goal can be obtained in the shortest time possible.  Ideally, the academic advisor can help the student with a range of issues and connect him or her to other support services when necessary. 

 At Post University, trained online academic advisors are ‘Academic Success Counselors’ who provide counseling to students to help with all aspects of academic success.  They counsel students on time management, connect them to study skill help at the University learning center, and help students monitor their course loads.  Keeping track of the Grade Point Average (GPA) trend is an important part of academic success.  

Adult learners benefit from a strong network of support services including academic advising, technology support, library support, registration support, tutoring support, financial aid support, and childcare support for adult main campus students.  As libraries and classrooms become more technologically advanced, adult students are often in need of help navigating the changing technology environment within the academic setting.

3. How can faculty and administration help adult learners achieve their academic goals and attain success in their degree programs?

Providing a welcoming, academic environment for adult learners takes an entire institutional effort.  According to the Noel Levitz National Adult Student Priorities Report, the top thing that adult learners want is a school with an excellent academic program that matches their needs.  There is no substitute for quality courses, whether on a main campus or online.  Additionally, adult students want assurance that there will be a return-on-investment (ROI) of their time, effort, and money.  Administration should provide information to students about what the ROI is for different programs.  What jobs do alumni hold?  What salaries does the field command?  What do alumni say about the value of the program?      

Research has shown that student success is connected to academic engagement, so faculty and administration can work to insure that students are engaged in their coursework.  At Post University, we disaggregate five questions from our end-of-course surveys—strength of communication channels, feedback from professor, recommendation of professor, discussion forums, and teaching skills—to compile a student-engagement index which is monitored by academic program managers to insure instructors are engaging students, and provide  appropriate professional development to support faculty. 

In addition to providing excellent course content, and engaging students, faculty can get to know their adult learners and tap into their professional experience to enhance the course.  Faculty should provide a lot of feedback to students.  All students—but especially adult learners—want specific feedback about their work that tells them what is both right and wrong and most important: why it is right or wrong.  The faculty need to be available for adult learners at flexible times for a working population.    

Administration can insure that marketing targets and welcomes adult learners and that admissions and registration processes are clear and convenient.  Flexible schedules or delivery modes are critical for adult learners.  Providing a means for adult learners to meet their peers through adult student ‘Meet & Greet’ opportunities is helpful in creating a culture for adult learners, especially those in an undergraduate program who are mixed with traditional-age students. 

Acknowledging the special expertise and accomplishments of adult learners is particularly important.  They bring important life experience to the college environment that is easily squelched by attending to only the traditional student.  Faculty and administration of a college or university should all know the institution’s demographic data and plan accordingly to insure the sub-populations, including the adult learners, are made to feel welcome and have their needs met.            

4. Being able to complete course work at times convenient for them was of importance to over 91 percent of adult learners. What can universities do to work with the schedules of busy adult learners and provide them the convenience they need?

Certainly flexible scheduling is critical to serving the needs of adult learners.  Having early morning (e.g., 7 a.m.), evening, and weekend class options provides windows of choice for working adults.  Asynchronous online programs are ideal for adults who are independent learners. These programs provide students with independent means to learn the course objectives online at their own pace.  Blended, sometimes called hybrid, programs combine main campus and online work in a flexible balance that can meet the needs of adults who wish to combine a face-to-face learning environment with the flexibility of online learning. 

Many online programs, including Post University’s online degree program, are accelerated.  Post’s online degree program allows students to complete courses in eight-week mods, which are half the time of a traditional semester.  This accelerated timeframe is designed with adult learners in mind—those who are already independent and goal-oriented students.       

Additionally, adult learners often bring a wealth of valuable prior experience to the learning table.  Universities can institute policies for review of ‘Credit for Life and Work Experience’ and offer a means such as portfolio and test-out options to obtain credit for prior relevant experience.

5. According to the Noel Levitz report, failing to get the campus experience tends to leave adult students less engaged and more vulnerable to attrition. What can universities do to engage their adult learners and make them feel like a part of the university?

Number one is that universities need to acknowledge their adult learners and not keep them hidden among traditional students.  Periodic newsletter profiles of adult students, using adult professionals as speakers, or providing them opportunities to do joint scholarly writing or conference presentations with faculty are all opportunities to engage the adult learner at a higher level of discourse than the traditional undergraduate. 

 The university community should be educated as to the different needs of an adult population.  Malcolm Knowles is the famous educator (1913-1997) who espoused the concept of:  adult learning theory.  He recognized the adult need to be self-directed and the importance of taking advantage of adult personal histories.  Adults want to see immediate application of learning to solving real-world problems.  In other words, if universities give adults the tools to learn and the vehicle to learn what they need to meet their own goals, the students will become engaged. 

 Orientation programs are traditionally geared to a university’s main campus population.  Adult learners can benefit from an orientation geared to working adults, which will help them learn of specific support services geared to their population and have a chance to meet their adult colleagues.  

 Traditional student programming is often geared to younger interests.  Adult learners are anxious for networking opportunities and deeper applicable content knowledge.  Programming that profiles experts in major-specific fields and brings together an outside audience relative to the degree program is generally appreciated by adult professionals who are hungry to see the applicability of their advanced studies. 

 Post University is proud of our adult learners, both on our main and virtual campuses.  We celebrate their particular successes, and at graduation have a traditional valedictorian as well as an Accelerated Degree Program valedictorian who most often represents the Post University adult learners.  

 Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury for the few; it is the necessity of an economy built on innovation and change.  As universities, we have the obligation to educate a changing demographic than spans a lifetime.  The narrow focus of educating 18-22 year olds is quickly fading.  It’s time for universities to embrace lifelong learning as the adults have who are banging at the doors of higher education.  The world of academe is expanding as never before in exciting new directions and it is up to us to throw open the doors to adult learners.
Jane Bailey, Ed.D. is currently Provost at Post University. Previously, she served as the Dean of Post University’s School of Education. Before that, she served as Academic Program Manager for Graduate Education and was instrumental in the creation of the Post University Master of Education degree program. She brings more than 25 years of higher education experience to the University, along with many years of experience as an elementary school teacher.


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